The New York Times this morning ran an editorial “Sex Offenders In Exile” that is about the most sensible thing they’ve written on the topic. In it, they rightly point out that driving sex offenders underground by overly restrictive policies about where they can live is a dangerous and misguided tactic.
They also rightly point out that such policies — which have effectively made some entire cities and towns off limits to sex offenders — are often made because we are justifiably afraid. That our fear is justifiable does not mean that it is a good driving force for policy-making. Fear leads to irrational decisions.
Sociologists are big on discussions of unintended consequences. Policies like those that bar sex offenders from living within 1000 or in some cases 2000 feet from a school, playground, place of worship, etc., are rife with unintended consequences, as the editorial points out. For one thing, they often push sex offenders into margins where they are harder to monitor. They also make it harder for offenders to hold jobs and become integrated into the kinds of social networks that would actually support their rehabilitation. Remember not all sex offenders are hard-core recidivists. But even those who are less likely to re-offend become more likely to do so if they’re only friends and neighbors are also other offenders.
Another unintended consequence of these policies is that they lull us into a false sense of safety. For one thing, the majority of sex offenses against children are committed by people known to the child, not by strangers. For another thing, simply making a likely re-offender live farther away from children does not keep them from traveling into circles where children will play. And there is a class-injustice here as well: poorer families are more likely to live in the places where sex offenders are allowed to live, making their children more likely than wealthier children to be the targets of registered sex offenders.
I am easily frustrated when I see irrational decisions being made. I am prone to outbursts like “Why don’t people think rationally about X,” whatever X might be. This editorial points out that people don’t make decisions based on how they think. They make decisions based on how they feel. And this is a very important insight.
Recently, I had a chance to talk with Judith Levine, a writer whose work on sexuality and the perils of “protecting” children in ways that do them more harm has been very influential in my own thinking about sex policies. Judith reminded me that the important work that we who write about sexuality or politics or any sensitive issue need to take up is not to change how people think, but rather to change how they feel.
It is hard to imagine how to change people’s feelings about sex criminals or about children. We have made children into frail and sacred objects and have projected onto them so many of our fears about so many things.
How do we make ourselves less afraid? How do we make ourselves care enough about safety and justice to get it right? How do we get ourselves to be outraged at the effects of our fear-based decisions?
Consider the impact of these policies on the life of Genarlow Wilson, who, three years ago when he was 17 had consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl at a party. He was convicted of molesting her and sentenced to 11 years in prison. She never filed a complaint about the sex. Even prosecutors in the case wish that the outcome had been different. They had originally been bringing a rape charge against a group of boys, including Genarlow, and Genarlow was found to be not guilty of that charge, but videotape evidence presented in that case showed him having oral sex with the 15-year-old-girl. In explaining why he would not accept a plea deal offered to him, which would have cut his prison time, he said:
“Even after serving time in prison, I would have to register as a sex offender wherever I lived and if I applied for a job for the rest of my life, all for participating in a consensual sex act with a girl just two years younger than me,” he told a reporter for Atlanta magazine last year, adding that he would not even be able to move back in with his mother because he has an 8-year-old sister. ”It’s a lifelong sentence in itself. I am not a child molester.”
Nobody intended for an outcome like this to occur. Nobody intended for a bright, successful, promising young man’s life to be ruined because he was sexually active and had consensual sex with a girl just a few years younger than himself.
But that is what has happened, and it has happened because of policies made in fear. I will refrain from my ordinary appeal to reason. I take Judith Levine’s point. People act based on their emotions. So instead I will appeal to compassion. How do we generate compassion such that it puts our fears in their proper perspective? And how can we moderate our fear so that it matches our actual level of risk?
One way is by reducing our exposure to fear-inducing media and increasing our exposure to more sensible opinions. I’ve written before about the damage done by such popular programs as Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator.” Certainly programs like that one do much to make us afraid and little to make us truly safer.
But we should also be talking to each other more honesty about how we really do feel and what we really do think. It is incredibly difficult to speak up against injustice or irrationality when sex offenders are the target of the injustice or the irrational policy. But it is important to do it. It is important not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is one of the few things that can change our feelings, lead us to make better policy, and really make us safer.